The two-and-through tenure of Edmonton Eskimos head coach Chris Jones puts one in mind of that Marx Brothers song, Hello, I Must Be Going, from the movie Animal Crackers.
Which might be all the barrel-of-laughs comedians from way back in the day could be said to have in common with Jones, an all-business, all-in football professional and certainly a consistently successful one.
Jones barely had time to celebrate the Eskimos’ Grey Cup victory before he decamped to Regina, signing on as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ vice-president of football operations, general manager, head coach and defensive co-ordinator. And he took his coaching staff with him in the bargain.
This after quite the two-year Edmonton gig for Jones. His Eskimos fashioned a 26-10 regular-season won-lost record, went 2-1 in playoff games and 1-0 in their only Grey Cup appearance. Jones was a finalist for the CFL coach of the year award both seasons, losing to the Calgary Stampeders’ John Hufnagel in 2014 and to the Ottawa Redblacks’ Rick Campbell this time around.
After the Eskimos dismissed the Stampeders in the West Division final, Jones was asked whether he believed, coming in, that he could lead the Eskimos to a Grey Cup berth in two years.
“We should have been there last year,” Jones said.
Obviously, patience is no virtue in Jones’s world and self-belief no issue at all. That’s a good thing, too, because the 2015 Eskimos faced major challenges from the outset. They lost starting running back John White in training camp to an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him the entire season. And quarterback Mike Reilly went down in the season opener with a knee injury that kept him out of action until Labour Day.
That was just for starters.
But Jones’s justifiably vaunted defence held the fort until Reilly returned. With backup quarterbacks Matt Nichols and James Franklin providing just enough offence to ring up some points and keep that dominant defence sufficiently rested, the Eskimos were a respectable 5-3 when they faced their nemesis and provincial rival from Calgary on Labour Day. The Eskimos lost 16-7 as the defence held, yet again, but Franklin and the offence were throttled by the Stampeders defenders.
Reilly, who came on in relief in the Labour Day game, then made his first start since the opener as the Eskimos began a run of 10 straight victories — eight to close out the regular season — before clobbering Calgary 45-31 in the West final and grinding out a 26-20 victory over the second-year Redblacks in the Grey Cup a week later.
Not all the wins were pretty ones as Reilly ran the table. In a 25-18 victory in windy Hamilton, Reilly completed seven of 22 passes for 49 yards, with one interception and zero touchdowns. Ugh. But interceptions for touchdowns by defensive backs Otha Foster and Aaron Grymes led the “offensive attack” that day.
There is no doubt the 8-0 roll the Esks fashioned heading into the playoffs was led by Reilly, who is precisely what Jones consistently called him — “a winner.” The fact that Reilly returns in 2016 and now will work with new head coach Jason Maas, the former Edmonton quarterback, should provide Eskimos fans with plenty of optimism for next season. It was Maas whose work as offensive co-ordinator with Ottawa and Henry Burris in 2015 propelled the 40-year-old QB to a career year and Grey Cup berth.
In Edmonton, Maas, whose intensity and commitment to hard work are legendary, figures to be an excellent fit with both Reilly and young Franklin, for whom Maas could be a superb mentor. At least one of the team’s deep cadre of receivers recognizes the possibilities.
When the Maas signing was confirmed, veteran Canadian receiver Nate Coehoorn tweeted: “Excited to get to work with Coach Maas. First time in my career I have had an offensive-minded head coach. This should be fun!”
Maas becomes the first offensive-minded head coach the Eskimos have had since Danny Maciocia in 2008. Since then, a succession of defensive-minded men — Richie Hall, Kavis Reed and Jones — have been in charge.
With go-to receiver Adarius Bowman — the best of an impressive array of offensive weapons — now locked up for the next two seasons, Maas and Reilly will have plenty of material to work with again in 2016.
Interestingly, the man securing the talent for the Maas-coached Eskimos is general manager Ed Hervey, an excellent deep threat for Maas when both were Edmonton teammates in the early 2000s. Hervey, Maas and Reilly comprise a formidable leadership triumvirate that should more than compensate for the loss of Jones and his assistants.
No team has repeated as Grey Cup champion since 2010, when the Montreal Alouettes made it two in a row over Saskatchewan. The Eskimos have not even been in a position to try for a repeat since 2006, the year after the club won its 13th Grey Cup title. Things did not go well that season, with a diminished Esks club going 7-11 and missing the playoffs.
The Eskimos are a long way from a Grey Cup repeat. There are free agents to sign, the inevitable holes to plug after some talented players depart, a complete coaching staff to assemble.
But with such strong leadership and so many other pieces already in place, you have to like their chances of giving it a real shot.